In 2006, Montenegro won its independence from Serbia and in 2009, NATO granted the small country into its Membership Action Program to facilitate its path into the alliance. Last month, the senate voted 97-2 to allow Montenegro into the alliance, pending the approval of President Trump. Montenegro will enter the ranks of Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, and Slovenia from the small, ethnically, and religiously diverse southeastern part of Europe. With Montenegro’s accession into the alliance, NATO will have contiguous control of the coasts and sea-lanes from Spain to Turkey. However, Russia claims that Montenegro’s decision to join the alliance will have negative ramifications for the country and the region– an accusation based on the idea that Russia has a right to a sphere of influence over its ‘Slavic brothers.’ (Yugo-slavia = South-Slavs)
Russia has conducted several destabilizing activities in the lead up to Montenegro’s accession into NATO. Most notably, Russian security forces attempted to assassinate the former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic last October. In addition to such egregious and illegal acts, Moscow has funded Montenegro’s Democratic Front – a political party that supports anti-NATO legislation and the abolishment of western sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and ongoing hostilities in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
Russia is also destabilizing the Balkans. The Kremlin is stoking the fire of a politically and ethnically diverse group of people, still recovering from the wars and humanitarian disasters of the 1990s. Last year, Russia and Belarus conducted joint security exercises in Serbia along Montenegro’s border as a not so subtle show of force in the region. Additionally, Russia has pledged to donate (6) Mikoyan Mig-29 fighter jets and dozens of tanks, and other combat vehicles to Serbia to facilitate ongoing arms deals with the country.
Russia conducts many of the same low cost, high payoff activities in the Balkans that it has throughout many of the other former Soviet states. The Kremlin’s activities include funding anti-NATO and anti- EU political parties, disinformation, cyber campaigns, assassination, intimidation, energy diplomacy, and corruption. And the preexisting religious, political, and ethnic tension in the Balkans, makes it a ripe target for the Kremlin to exploit and sow political and security discontent as a basis for warding off NATO and EU expansion. To some extent, the strategy is working. In response to Serbia’s growing army, Kosovo is trying to upgrade its security forces to a fully functional army in light of recent provocations by believed Russian backed Serbs to trigger a regional crisis.
Furthermore, in the lead up to the 2018 presidential election, a conflict in the Balkans could be viewed as a political gain for Vladimir Putin as he gives aid to his ‘Slavic brothers’ and intervenes in the region in a way Russia could not in the 1990s.
In response to Montenegro’s accession into NATO, Sen. Rand Paul said, “Adding a country with fewer than 2,000 soldiers to NATO is not in our self-interest. There is no national security interest that an alliance with Montenegro will advance. If we invite Montenegro into NATO, it will be a one-way street with the U.S. committing to defend yet another country.” Yes, Sen. Paul is correct; but in addition to his strict and transactional cost/benefit analysis, further considerations are required before NATO decides to end its open door policy.
Enshrined in Article 10 of its founding treaty, NATO’s open door policy has always been an important pillar of the alliance. The goal of the open door policy is to promote security and cooperation throughout Europe and North America as members build bonds based on peace, freedom, and democracy. Despite claims from the Kremlin, NATO does not annex, spread or grow unilaterally. The alliance allows other countries to reform themselves, and upon consensus of the 28-member alliance, the prospective country is then allowed to join the alliance. Countries interested in joining the alliance must undergo extensive and often difficult political, economic, and military reforms to meet NATO’s high standards. Additionally, in light of Russia’s aggressive activities in Ukraine, Syria, and the Balkans, to revoke Montenegro’s ability to join NATO and terminate the alliance’s open-door policy would be a de-facto acknowledgement that Russia can deter NATO from its interests and therefore embolden the Kremlin further.
At the heart of this issue is the idea of sovereignty, and more broadly, the international order in which the Kremlin rejects. It is quite possible that the Kremlin views the expansion of NATO as a continuation of its Cold War era style of foreign policy. But, if one were to suspend reality for a moment and imagine a world in which NATO did not expand after the Cold War, would Russia still be acting in a similar way? I would argue yes. President Putin and other autocratic leaders do not ‘fear’ NATO; rather, they fear democracy and the collective voice of a people rising up to determine their country’s national and international trajectories. Therefore, it is entirely possible that if NATO remained in place after 1991, the Kremlin would still be acting in similar ways towards those that seek an independent voice for themselves.
In effect, it is not NATO that Putin fears, but the people of Montenegro. Despite the Kremlin’s heinous interference in the country, Montenegrins have exercised their freedoms as a sovereign country and chosen to stand up against Moscow’s meddling.
Montenegro also serves as an excellent example for other countries in the region to follow. Only 18 years ago NATO bombed parts of Montenegro as a part of its Campaign during the Kosovo War, and 11 years after winning its independence from Serbia, the small country is on the precipice of joining the most powerful and successful alliance in history. Montenegro is a testament to the power of democratic mobilization and their ability to thwart the will of the Kremlin.